Loss aversion in the eye and in the heart: The autonomic nervous system's responses to losses



The common view in psychology and neuroscience is that losses loom larger than gains, leading to a negativity bias in behavioral responses and Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) activation. However, evidence has accumulated that in decisions under risk and uncertainty individuals often impart similar weights to negative and positive outcomes. We examine the role of the ANS in decisions under uncertainty, and its consistency with the behavioral responses. In three studies, we show that losses lead to heightened autonomic responses, compared to equivalent gains (as indicated by pupil dilation and increased heart rate) even in situations where the average decision maker exhibits no loss aversion. Moreover, in the studied tasks autonomic responses were not associated with risk taking propensities. These results are interpreted by the hypothesis that losses signal the subjective importance of global outcome patterns. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.